Four Pastoral Applications of Thomistic Divine Simplicity

by Anthony Miller

Although our knowledge of God is incomplete on this side of glory, we must seek not to be dismissive of any demonstrably true formulations about Him lest we begin to think thoughts contrary to His glorious nature. One such formulation that is currently being debated amongst evangelicals is the notion of Divine Simplicity. Some, such as Dr. James White, even hold that certain formulations of Divine Simplicity have no practical pastoral application. On the contrary, as we will see, thinking rightly about God’s Simplicity has important pastoral applications in several areas. I will take this opportunity to share the good news from a pastor’s perspective—our labor to rightly think about God is not in vain!

What is Divine Simplicity?

The pastors who wrote and signed the most influential Protestant confessions from the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries confessed Divine Simplicity as a foundational orthodox doctrine. Rather than implying that God is simple to understand, the opposite is actually the case as demonstrated by the various conflicting expositions of simplicity among those who claim to uphold it. Divine Simplicity has succinctly been defined as God being “without parts.”[1]

Southern Evangelical Seminary is known to teach Thomas Aquinas’s formulation of Divine Simplicity. One of the distinct features of this formulation is that all of God’s attributes (e.g., power, knowledge, love, etc.), while distinct in our understanding, are one in Him. Thomas says the divine perfections “pre-exist in God unitedly and simply, whereas in creatures they are received, divided and multiplied” (ST.I.13.4).[2] This statement is briefly expounded on here. Critics of Thomas’s doctrine often refer to it as Absolute Divine Simplicity.

These critics may endorse the idea that God’s attributes are identical to His essence with a caveat being that there are distinctions among the attributes in God. They sometimes claim it is not necessary nor beneficial to assert that all of God’s attributes are one in Him. For someone like Dr. James White, it is not clear why something so allegedly obscure as Thomistic Divine Simplicity assists in the task of demonstrating God’s desire to reveal Himself to His people (see here). On a recent episode of his Dividing Line webcast, he said that “there is not a single meaningful pastoral application of that extended application [of Thomistic Divine Simplicity] that anyone’s going to care about 10 years from now.”

Before we consider the important pastoral applications of Thomistic Divine Simplicity,  I will point out that truth is worth knowing regardless of whether one judges the truth to be applicable or not. Even more so, the truth about God is worth knowing for its own sake. Pastors ought not model their ministry after John Dewey’s pragmatism, which teaches people they should learn only for the sake of being a contributing member of society.  Lest we conduct our theological method backwards, the truthfulness of our conclusions in theology proper are not determined by any perceived meaningful application. Rather, true doctrine determines what the application is.

What Difference Does Thomistic Divine Simplicity Make?

Some may be unaware of the metaphysical underpinnings that necessitate that all of God’s attributes are one in Him. Consequently, some may discount the doctrine due to not being able to imagine how it is true. But one of the greatest pieces of advice I received and now pass along to those in my congregation was something that SES Academic Dean Dr. J.T. Bridges said when I was taking SES’s Theology Proper course: “Don’t use your imagination when thinking about God; use your intellect!”

As human beings, we naturally come to know things by observing the physical world around us. Our intellects initially come to know the natures of things (i.e., what a thing is). We know, for example, the nature of a tree after observing a number of trees. Secondly, we make a judgment about the concept in our intellect (a specific tree for example)—not about what it is—but about whether it is (i.e., it exists). The existence of things in the sensible world is grasped by the intellect, but our intellects do not form a concept of existence itself.[3] This is significant in regard to how we are able to reason to conclusions about the existence and nature of God.

Things in creation bear witness to God (Psa. 19:1-6), and through creation we know that God cannot be like creation in its physicality and potentiality. Paul says, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20, NASB1995). He clarifies this again in Acts 17:29. “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.” Joseph Owens points out that since God is unhindered by finite restrictions, He is beyond the finite and fallen human intellect’s power to conceive. To us the luminous God is enshrouded in darkness.[4] When we speak God’s attributes based on the concepts we have gained through creation, their meaning “is raised to a height that completely transcends the conceptualizing power of the intellect.”[5]

When thinking about our immaterial God, we must recognize our minds cannot abstract His nature directly from the sensible world and form a concept of Him. God is Pure Existence (i.e., Pure Actuality), and since we cannot form a concept of existence, our finite and fallen intellects cannot form a concept of God. The Scriptures confirm this when God asks, “To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isa. 46:5). “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me?” (46:9b).

In other words, our minds can know that God’s attributes exist unitedly in Him without knowing exactly what they are in God.[6] This is a true intellectual judgment about His Divine Nature that allows us to avoid two extremes. On one hand, we can avoid total skepticism (i.e., equivocal language) about God, which critics of Thomistic Divine Simplicity are rightly concerned about. And on the other hand, we can escape creaturely concepts (i.e., univocal language) unjustly applied to Him. For more on the details of our ability to understand and speak about God analogically, read here.

The application is this—imagining God with created categories is a form of idolatry that every saint must seek to avoid. Thomistic Divine Simplicity makes a difference here. But what other pastoral applications are there?

Four Pastoral Applications of Thomistic Divine Simplicity

 

1)    Worship & Adoration

 
 

We can understand why some would reject the doctrine that all of God’s attributes are one in Him because this makes God out to be unimaginable. If, however, the ability to imagine or conceptualize God were tests for truth, we may be justified in rejecting the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as well. Yet, we sing Doxology instead. In Stephen Charnock’s multivolume work The Existence and Attributes of God, there is a section “On Spiritual Worship” in which he talks about how we judge God worthy of worship for His infinitude: “… and we cannot apprehend and admire those perfections, but as we see them as causes shining in their effects.”[7] He also says, “The true God shall be adored without those vain imaginations and fantastic resemblances of Him, which were common about the blind Gentiles, and contrary to the glorious nature of God. …”[8] As the beloved Apostle says, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

I recall the first time the doctrines of God’s Pure Actuality and Divine Simplicity were presented to me as my brother was leading a study on God’s attributes at his dining room table. This was one of the turning points in my walk with God as my preconceived, limited notions of Him began to wash away in His infinite sea of Being. As Charles Spurgeon says, “[God’s nature] is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity.”[9] Over a decade later, it is one of my greatest joys to explain that God is Pure Existence to my brothers and sisters—face to face. I have seen eyes widen up as well as tear up in worship and wonder. Spurgeon is right again: “But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it.”[10] I love witnessing God’s people ponder deeply the nature of the God whom they love.

2)    Pastoral Study & Exegesis

 

Contemporary pastors may not typically be in the habit of thinking about “being” as such. It is not common for our education system to train us to think this way. Nor, in God’s providence, will every pastor have the time, opportunity, or interest to do so. But just as it is always good for pastors to be familiar with logic (i.e., laws of being) in order to properly interpret the biblical text, it is always good to become familiar with the metaphysical notion of Pure Being itself. This way it is easier for pastors to detect drifts in other’s reasoning as well as their own. When adjudicating between various forms of classical theism, if our test for truth is not anchored in what is undeniable (i.e., first principles of being), we may be more susceptible to being “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Some pastors may drift into “adopting lenses” to do theology or interpret Scripture due to rationalistic, pragmatic, or emotional temptations. When we have an underdeveloped or aberrant philosophical methodology, it makes it easier for the enemy of our souls to pull on loose threads in our minds. If one implicitly posits God has parts (e..g, composed of both act and potency), and therefore denies Thomistic Divine Simplicity, the logical conclusion would be that all His other attributes would unravel as well.

One may wonder why Jesus and the Apostles never recommended that we study metaphysics for the purpose of ensuring we do not posit bad ideas about God. The answer is simple. We have 2,000 years of church history worth of bad philosophy infecting the church. However, we are so detailed and particular in our formulations now because, as C.S. Lewis says, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”[11] Why do Christians seem content to implicitly imbibe the thought of Hegel and Kant but cringe at the thought of utilizing Aristotle?

Aristotle used certain terms to describe concepts that undeniably correspond to reality. Since there is no distinction between a pagan’s reality and a Christian’s reality, we do not need to fear an overlap in our discoveries. However, we do acknowledge a pagan will have significant blind spots. It is relevant here to acknowledge that Thomas departs from Aristotle on the nature of existence itself![12] And we depart from Thomas when he is wrong in other areas of theology. We do not formulate our doctrine based on the thoughts of men. The reductive foundationalism that Thomas models rightly begins with reality itself and then proceeds to reduce what we know intuitively about our experience of reality (i.e., first principles) to demonstrate what we mean by “God.” This is unlike the deductive foundationalism of René Descartes and Benedict Spinzoa, which begins in pure thought and then attempts to deduce other truths from this thought, thus leaving the thinker with the inability to escape from his own mind.[13] The pastor who thinks critically about Thomistic Divine Simplicity is not focused on thinking about thoughts of God but rather about the reality of God Himself. Knowing God is not only a prerequisite for worship and adoration—but for pastoral study, exegesis, and teaching His people the application of Scripture as well.

3) Preaching & Teaching

 
 

Amateur preachers straight out of seminary are sometimes known for flexing their biblical language skills in the pulpit. The well-seasoned preacher may utilize his Hebrew and Greek tools during his time of study to determine the meaning of a passage, but his sermon will not be a lesson on Hebrew and Greek per se. His sermon will convey the meaning and proper application of the passage. In the same way, the distinctions of Thomistic Divine Simplicity do not necessarily need to be preached from the pulpit. But when speaking about God every week, the preacher who holds to Thomistic Divine Simplicity will be guarded from trying to make the incomprehensible essence of God comprehensible. Not all truths that the pastor learns in his study will be communicated explicitly and publicly, but it is his time in study that saves him from presenting God in a way that implies He has passive potency (e.g., the capacity for inner change).

How does this affect biblical exposition? Take Dr. James White as one example. Presupposing a real distinction in God between His attributes, Dr. White asks, “So God is not able to make the distinction we do, or is the distinction we make, even in glorifying His mercy and fearing His wrath, substantially wrong?”[14]  First of all, proponents of the Thomistic view would not argue that mercy and wrath are one in God, since they are not in God at all.[15] God’s mercy and wrath do, however, flow from God’s attributes of love and justice, and these are indeed one in Him. To answer Dr. White’s question, God cannot make a distinction in Himself, since He is immutable. However, God knows the distinctions we make, and He knows it is substantially wrong when we make distinctions among His Pure Substantial Existence. If God were to differ in His essence, there would be an aspect of His essence that differs from another aspect, which necessitates there would be a lack among His essence. On the contrary, God’s mercy, wrath, and power all bear witness to the same awesome undivided essence of God in “whom there is no variation or shifting shadow”(James. 1:17). Yet in our changing finitude, we feel differentiated effects from Him (Rom. 9:22-23).

God’s love and justice are not distinguished in Him, which guarantees all who turn to Christ will experience mercy (Rom. 10:13). The same sun that melts wax hardens clay. The person standing under Niagara Falls with a bucket right side up will catch water, and the person standing with the bucket upside down will not catch water.[16] The active flow of the water remains constant while we change. Mercy and wrath are characteristics of God in the sense that creatures experience different effects based on how they are related to God. Rather than not knowing which alleged “aspect” of God one will encounter, God’s very Being gives our people assurance that all who will turn to Christ and drink the water He provides will never thirst again (John 4:13).

4) Growth and Devotion to Jesus

 
 

Pastors are often asked questions about why God has allowed certain evils. We are asked why God called for the slaughter of women and children in the Old Testament (Deut. 20:16). Apologists seek to write books to justify God’s behavior in accordance with our moral standards. But since God’s goodness is identical with His Being, He has no external moral standard to which He must adhere, because He is not a moral Being in the sense that humans are. We are not His judge.

We admonish our people to respond like Job: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me.” (Job 42:3-4). We say to our people that the Judge of all the earth shall do right (Gen. 18:25). All of this is true, and Thomistic Divine Simplicity helps us understand that righteousness in God is not exactly the same limited concept of righteousness as we know it. It is also not distinct from God’s other attributes. This appears to be a main concern of the critics, namely, that this leads us to utter skepticism of God.

But such concern is not warranted. As we have seen, we can be grateful that God wants us to know about Himself through His effects in creation and throughout redemptive history:  “Great are the works of the LORD; They are studied by all who delight in them” (Psa. 111:2). Nevertheless, we are most confident in what He has revealed of Himself by speaking through His Son (Heb. 1:2).

Thomistic Divine Simplicity should cause us to marvel and appreciate the incarnation to the highest degree. The Apostle John says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). We ought to strip away any concepts of finitude when pondering God’s Being, the One whom heaven and earth cannot contain (1 Kgs. 8:27). Yet this One who is incomprehensible to the finite intellect—the One who is Pure Existence itself—is the same One who dwelt among us (John 1:14, 8:58). The Apostle John provides for us the concluding application. He does this as he juxtaposes the facts that Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation of Himself and that none of us have seen God in His essence:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us (1 John 4:8-12).

We know He came because God loves us (John 3:16). Good theology proper does not merely affirm “God is love,” but it also must practically uphold God’s omnibenevolence, which is not a partial love—but a love identical to His own infinite essence overflowing toward all creatures. For wherever His boundless existence is, so is His love.

There is no dividing line in God. For the pastor, for the pastor’s congregation, and for God’s sake, Thomistic Divine Simplicity matters.

Editor’s Note: For the record, over the course of a month we made multiple attempts to invite Dr. James White, Dr. Owen Strachan, and Dr. Jeffrey Johnson to have a public and courteous discussion with three SES professors on their views of Aquinas, philosophy, etc. in order to discuss differences “face to face.” Regretfully, thus far our invitations have been met with silence.

[1] David Haines, “Classical Theism in the Magisterial Reformers and Reformed Orthodoxy,” in The Lord is One: Reclaiming Divine Simplicity, ed. Joseph Minich and Onsi A. Kamel (The Davenant Press, 2019), 106-107.

[2] https://isidore.co/aquinas/english/summa/FP/FP013.html#FPQ13A4THEP1

[3] Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 47.

[4] Joseph Owens, “Aquinas—“Darkness of Ignorance” in the Most Refined Notion of God,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, 5, no. 2 (Summer 1974): 93-110.

[5] Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics, 355.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stephen Charnock, Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God (1682; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 1:207.

[8] Ibid., 203.

[9] https://www.epm.org/resources/2010/Mar/12/charles-spurgeon-subject-god/

[10] Ibid.

[11] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory, rev. ed. (New York HarperOne, 1980), 58.

[12] See chapter 5 in Étienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Toronto; Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1952).

[13] Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013),  128-129.

[14] https://www.aomin.org/aoblog/theologymatters/on-divine-simplicity-and-natural-theology/

[15] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, God and Creation (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 385-406.

[16] Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed. (Bloomington, MI: Bethany House Publishers, 2010), 82.

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